High returns: Farmers in Maoist belt risk jail to grow marijuana
Even as stories of drug seizures in big ports and raids on rave parties on cruise boats make the headlines, it is states such as Odisha that have emerged the primary source of drugs such as cannabis.
It is early evening and the 45-year-old tribal man is making his third visit of the day to his standing crop. Around him, the forests of Swabhiman Anchal, a region wracked by the state-Maoist conflict in Malkangiri, stand tall and dense. Right next to the plantation is a massive man made lake, along the banks of the Balimela reservoir. The man has been growing the same crop for many years, undeterred, as are most others who do what he does. He has heard whispers that growing the crop is now dangerous, that the police now have access to the area, that there will be raids. But he will only believe it when he sees them. The profits are too high. After all, the crop he grows, is not paddy, but marijuana .
“I have been growing Ganja (cannabis sativa and cannabis indica) along the banks of Balimela reservoir for the past several years. Not just me, several people in my village do it. Though I keep on hearing that there could be police raids, I have not seen any police in last several years,” said the tribal farmer in Badapadar grampanchayat. They certainly haven’t come this year.
His crop, planted in two acres, stands a foot tall and is a month-old. The season starts in September, just as the monsoon begins to withdraw. He waters the crop thrice a day and has used urea too. Once the plant starts blooming, he will dry the pods in the sun, cure them and pack them in slabs. “The work is more difficult than paddy or millets. But it is easier in this terrain, and earns us more too. There are more risks now, but it is still worth it,” he said.
If caught, he could be jailed for up to 10 years and fined up to ₹1 lakh under Section 20 of the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act that was enacted in 1985 replacing the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1930. Though cannabis cultivation or intake was not a criminal activity earlier, it was criminalized in 1985 after the NDPS Act came into being.
By January, his slabs will be ready for sale and a local aggregator will collect it from the farmer who rattles of the economics of the business: cultivators get ₹700-800 a kg; every plant yields around a kg of the final product; an acre can accommodate 500 plants which means 500 kgs; that’s ₹3,50,000 - ₹4,00,000 an acre for five months of work. “Nothing goes unsold though at times I have been short-changed as the aggregator pays less than what he had promised saying some of his consignments were caught. We don’t complain as the return is far better than what we get growing millets or paddy,” the farmer says.
Marijuana costs anything between ₹500 and ₹1,000 for 10 grams, which works out to ₹50,000 to ₹1,00,000 a kg.
Even as stories of drug seizures in big ports and raids on rave parties on cruise boats make the headlines, it is states such as Odisha that have emerged the primary source of drugs such as cannabis. And while a broader debate on whether cannabis should be illegal does rage, the story of the tribal farmers of Anchal highlight the difficulties in implementation of existing laws.
The growing numbers in Odisha
Last week, police and excise officials said that they destroyed around 23,538 acres of cannabis in 10 districts of Odisha in 2020-21, the highest-ever. In 2020, Odisha seized 154,900 kg of cannabis, another highest ever figure, up from 19,800 kg in 2015. This year, it has so far reached around 140,000 kg and police officials estimate will cross last year’s record by the end of this month. In contrast, in Andhra Pradesh, a state that has traditionally been associated with high cannabis cultivation, the police seized 42,300 kg of cannabis last year while this year they have seized over 80,800kg till the end of September. The NCRB Crime in India report 2020 puts the total seizures of “cannabis based drugs” under the NDPS Act at 853,554.414 kg.
There is no nationally aggregated figure of cannabis seizure available with NCRB for last two to three years.
Senior police officials said there were two reasons for the increase in number of seizures in 2020. The first, the lack of vehicular movement on the road during the lockdown induced by Covid-19. “It was easier to identify and confiscate cannabis-laden vehicles last year due to lockdown as there were less traffic on roads last year,” said Abilash G, sub-divisional police officer of Malkangiri, one of the main centres of the cannabis trade in the state.
The second, officials said, was an increased focus on the issue at the highest levels of the state government. Odisha chief secretary Suresh Mohapatra last week asked officials to identify land records of people on whose land cannabis is cultivated and provide poor tribal families making a living from the trade with alternate livelihood opportunities through a convergence of Odisha Livelihood Mission, National Livelihood Mission and MGNREGS.
“Odisha has been among the biggest suppliers of cannabis for a long time due to large-scale plantation in the Maoist-affected hilly districts of Malkangiri, Koraput, Kandhamal, Gajapati, Boudh, Rayagada, Bargarh and few others. Now with the DGP focused on striking at the root of cannabis business, we are seeing seizures almost every 2-3 days in huge quantities,” said Jainarayan Pankaj, deputy inspector general of police of Special Task Force, the unit of Odisha police that has been tasked to go after the narcotics trade. The DIG was referring to DGP Abhay, who took over in December 2019. The DGP has, in the past, also held the post of the director general of NCB. The DGP has implemented a rewards system where police officials who conduct record seizures are being given commendation discs.
Additional director of enforcement, NCB, Piyush Kumar Singh said that in terms of cultivated area of cannabis, Odisha tops the list. “Over the last couple of years, Odisha has upped its enforcement making a lot of seizures. If you see the cannabis seizures in northern states, invariably those too will be from Odisha,” Singh said.
The Smuggling In India report for the year 2019-20 released by Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, identified Odisha as a source state, along with Andhra Pradesh, and flagged a more ominous, but inevitable consequence. “There is a distinct trend emerging from these seizures which indicates a flow of huge quantities of ganja coming from Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, passing through Telangana, Chattisgarh and MP before reaching the consumption centres in northern states of India, mainly UP and Bihar. Ganja not only has narcotics angle but also a national security concern as the illicit proceeds from the trafficking of it are used for feeding the growth of extremist activities,” the report said.
How Maoism is inextricably linked with cannabis
Officials say that it is no coincidence that in Odisha, cannabis is largely grown in its deeply forested, hilly, sparsely populated tracks, intersecting with districts that have traditionally seen the highest Maoist influence. “The Maoist hotbed of Swabhiman Anchal where most of the cannabis is grown, remained out of bounds for police till two years ago. It’s only after Maoist activities declined that police are being able to breach these areas. Even now police are not able to venture deep into the entire swathes of Swabhiman Anchal. In other districts such as Kandhamal and Gajapati, the topography is challenging,” said a senior official of the excise department.
In 2008, the Justice P K Mohanty Commission of Inquiry which investigated the activities and operation of drug mafia in the state, detailed that the cultivation of cannabis in Maoist-affected districts was supported by Chasi Mulia Samiti, a frontal organisation of CPI(Maoist). “We have information about some Maoist leaders supporting the cultivation in lieu of cuts they receive,” said Malkangiri SP Prahlad Meena.
A senior Intelligence official who looks closely at LWE (left wing extremism) affected states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Telangana and Odisha says that there is an inextricable link between the sustenance of Maoism, and the cultivation of a crop that is poorly regulated. “A very common question that is asked is where do Maoists get their funding from? A big source, that is not talked of, is the cut from crop sales of products in these forests that go under the radar. The pattern is the same. In Chhattisgarh, in the districts of Sukma, Bijapur and Dantewada, arguably the worst violence hit districts, the Maoists run on cuts from tendu-patta. The tendu leaves are used for making beedis and are a huge, basically unregulated industry. Cannabis serves the same purpose in Odisha. In Madhya Pradesh for instance, where the Maoists are trying to enter slowly, they have been trying to get bamboo cultivators on their side.”
The economics of cannabis cultivation also makes it difficult for the government to checkmate the flourishing trade, and those looking to make money from the process, like Maoists. The money (as evident from the price the Anchal farmer receives for cannabis) is good. It is also quick, and made through digital payment systems. “In most cases, the people sitting in other states invest in the cultivation. The farmers run little risk as the crop is grown in mostly government or community land making it difficult for the police to zero in on the culprits as no one would come to claim ownership,” said Varun Guntapalli, superintendent of police of Koraput.
The cat and mouse game
But even as the police and the administration have increased their vigilance in Odisha, they have come across an ingenious transportation network. Investigators said traders use empty fuel tankers, ambulances, passenger buses, oxygen cylinders, even India Post’s speed post.
On September 20 this year, police in Malkangiri district seized 2250 kg of cannabis from a truck that was carrying the contraband concealed under mounds of coal. In August last year, two drug peddlers were caught at Bhubaneswar’s Railway Mail Service booking counter with 411 kg of cannabis, trying to pass it off as cashew nuts. In June this year, 1277 kg of cannabis were seized by Koraput police from a truck transporting oxygen cylinders to Lucknow. “Oxygen cylinders were loaded at Visakhapatnam Port in Andhra Pradesh. On its way to Delhi, ganja was loaded onto the vehicle in Koraput district for scheduled delivery in Lucknow. In Covid times normally no one would stop vehicles carrying oxygen cylinders. But we are also trying to be one up on the smugglers,” said Rajesh Pandit, deputy inspector general of police (south-western) range.
Activists in Odisha say it will not be easy to demolish a system that has flourished for long not only with Maoist support, but also the tacit approval of police, revenue and excise officials. This year, one sub-inspector and two constables in Koraput have been dismissed from service because of their involvement in cannabis trafficking.
“For every cannabis truck that is seized, there may be two others that were allowed to go in lieu of money,” said Durga Prasad Tripathy, an activist in Malkangiri district. “The government has to not just incentivise alternative farming like turmeric, maize or other crops, but also think of out of box solutions that go beyond MNREGA schemes. Mowing down the cannabis fields will mean nothing, as they will always re-emerge if the market, and the workforce for it exists,” he said.